Tales of Travel: South of France

After our early departure from Roses, we drove straight through into France the following day.

We dropped my MIL off in the tiny village of Lodeve (where her sister has a B&B), then headed to the coast to Saintes Maries de la Mer. Another beach town, another tourist spot, but it was nice and quiet, and the weather had started to improve.

On top of the church - eeeeek!

We climbed up onto the church roof (amazing views…amazing vertigo), wandered the markets and tried to avoid the gypsies (these are not your glamorous, raven-haired, flamenco-dancing types, but wrinkly old crones trying to peddle their tinctures and trinkets; we’d been warned, in typical British-fashion, about the “gypos”) who go there every year on a pilgrimage to venerate their patron saint, Sara, whose crypt is in the church. We ate food that was an interesting marriage between Spanish and French, and drank more sangria.

The church in Saintes Maries de la Mer

On weekends they have an arena for French bullfighting….Tall’s sister said it was fantastic and quite different to Spanish bullfighting, but I’m quite glad we missed out on seeing any! However, I did get attacked by the local mosquitoes, which made up for the lack of bloodshed elsewhere.

Amphitheatre in Ales

The next day was meant for the beach, but once again, the weather wasn’t very nice so we travelled onto Ales (where we wandered around the Roman ampitheatre, which is still used for various events) and Avignon (a beautiful walled town with a spectacular papal palace), before joining the others in Lodeve. We went to the local pub for steak and chips and copious amounts of cask red wine – I don’t know what it is, but the French just know how to do food, and that was the best meal of steak and chips I’ve ever had.

Looking down into Avignon from within the papal palace

Unfortunately, I had to return to work early, so flew back to London from Montpellier the next day; Tall stayed on for a few more days and came home with an enviable tale of going out for a fancy meal and eating the best fois gras he’d ever had…sigh, the perils of not having enough leave!

We fully intended to return to Lodeve and explore the south of France before leaving Europe, but the lure of different places was too much. However, it is unlikely that Tall’s aunt will ever leave, so we do have plans to go back one of these days. I have some pretty darn fine fois gras to try, you see!

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Tales of Travel: Paris

I had wanted to visit Paris for as long as I could remember, so it was no surprise to Tall that I demanded suggested our first trip into mainland Europe be to the City of Love. An autumnal weekend in Paris? What could be better?!

My expectations for Paris were immense, and I was certainly not disappointed. The sights, the cuisine, the fashion, the people….everything was a tantalising assault on the senses, and I kept thinking to myself, Am I really here?? In Paris??!

The food was a particular highlight, naturally. We set about trying every typically-French food possible (escargot, duck, croissant, crème brûlée, veal, foie gras, croc monsieur, baguettes….), and I’m certain I came back from that trip a couple of kilograms heavier! House wine was tasty and cheap, and our last night was spent sitting outside a café by the Seine, sipping a deep red and watching the baguettes go by.

Paris is the type of city that throws so many interesting and intriguing twists and turns at you, that every time you go you’d see something you’d missed before.

We made our way towards La Tour Eiffel on our first evening; I said to Tall that I wouldn’t believe we were in Paris until I’d seen it. Everything I’d expected and more, it was amazing when lit up but loomed even taller during the day. The following day, we joined the shortest queue to climb to the second platform, and enjoyed the most spectacular views of the city as we climbed. Unfortunately the skies opened up and we got a little wet, and the camera batteries died, but we still had amazing views across Paris.

Place de la Concorde was laid out between 1755 and 1775 and is home to the Obelisk and something like the london eye. It was dusk when we wandered into the square, and everything was lit up. Looking down the Avenue des Champs Elysées towards the Arc de Triomphe, with La Tour Eiffel in the distance throwing out light from its asparagus tip, it really hit home that we were finally – finally – in Paris.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is a beautiful old building, quite strange in its external architecture – an ecclectic mix of angels and gargoyles clamber up the roof. The inside of the cathedral is just as beautiful, with the stunning rose window and the massive organ underneath. The beggars outside were a shock to me; never before had I seen individuals in such horrific states abusing the kindness of complete strangers.

Musée du Louvre is quite possibly one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen. Its sheer size is unimaginable from images you may have seen, until you’re standing by the pyramid, turning in a circle, taking it all in. It’s place you could easily get lost in, and somewhere you could spend a full day and only cover one wing. The sculptures and “large” French paintings, some of which took up an entire wall and were so intricate in their design and detail, were fantastic, but The Mona Lisa, was unimpressive (tiny and gloomy, even with her clever eyes that follow you everywhere). There is always a large crowd gathered around her, but the amusing thing is that if all those people turned around, they would be confronted by the most amazing painting on the wall behind her. I had been ordered (under threat of never been spoken to again) to visit Napolean’s apartments which are at the end of one wing – the little general lived a sumptuous and extravagant lifestyle in those opulent rooms!

Having been dragged around all the places I wanted to see, Tall chose to visit Musée de l’Armée, home to some interesting WW1 and WW2 exhibitions and items. The best part for me was Napolean’s tomb which was HUGE. No expense was spared for his final resting place – a ginormous mahogany tomb which encases a series of 7 coffins, each set inside the other with Napolean’s remains in the very centre. Like his apartments, his tomb was an extravagance.

We took a brisk stroll through the magnificent gardens of the Palais du Luxembourg, which seemed like a place where people would meet for lunch or to write, sketch, fall in love…

The walk up Av. des Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe was lovely; as you get closer you realise how big and striking it is. We didn’t climb up it, but instead wandered around it and admired the carvings in the stone, at the same time as marvelling how people could survive driving around it.

Possibly the highlight of the trip for me was Montmatre. It is an artistic haven with cobbled streets and small cafés, artists selling their work and approaching people to draw their portrait – “it is a tradition” – for a small fortune. It had such a good feel to it and was so….so….French.

Bearing in mind that we had no camera for the majority of this trip, I have my first vision of Basilique du Sacré-Cœur burned in to my memory forever. I don’t know if I can put in to words how breathtaking I found this beautiful church….but as you climb the hill from the metro, it suddenly appears before you and cuts short whatever conversation you may have been having. The day was brilliantly sunny and the sky a perfect indigo blue, and I fell in love with the Sacré-Cœur on sight. Inside, there is a sense of faith and peace and hope, regardless of your personal beliefs.

(click on image for source)

Paris is somewhere I could have stayed forever, absorbing the culture and creativity and colour and cuisine, and I hope to go back one day. But, there are a few more places left for us to see in this world, so I’ll have to be content with the three fabulous days we spent there for now.